I’ve started a project with a fellow great music lover, Jake Smith. He’s in his twenties and I’m…not. So here’s how this is going to work. I’ve selected ten albums released between 1989 and 1999. That’s kind of my era of new music. It goes from finishing up middle school, takes me through high school, and gets into my undergrad college career when I was working in college radio. Since Jake is younger, he has has selected ten albums released between 2007 and 2017. Each week, we swap albums and listen to them as fans and as critics. Then we write up a review and share with the other guy. Afterwards we each get a chance to respond. Let’s call these our Overdue Reviews. Here’s my review of the first album given to me by Jake:
Leave it to Jake to give me an album with cover art and song titles which I can barely share! But here goes…
Lenny Kravitz shouted (but really he whined) that rock and roll is dead. That’s pretty impressive for a guy who coopted most of his sound from artists in the seventies. And Cooley of the Drive by Truckers apologized for rock and roll, saying that it means well but can’t help telling young boys lies. I love Cooley but they are both wrong. Rock and roll is alive and can still tell the truth. Rock and roll can even save lives. I have to believe this is the case after having listened to Laura Jane Grace pour out her vulnerability, her despair, her redemption, and her courage on this album.
The only way to make a punk album is with complete and utter abandon. And this one is the auditory equivalent of a Robert Mapplethorpe gallery show. If you can make it through the shocking, profane and the violent that hit you as soon as you put the album in your hands and see the cover art and the names of the tracks, if you can strap yourself in for the twenty-eight minute and forty-three second run time (in ten tracks!) then you will find a rarity – a completely well produced and performed album of songs that are connected by the theme of gender confusion, struggle, identity and eventual liberation – whether that’s experienced in real life by Miss Grace or in the protagonists who live in her songs.
And man, the people in these songs. They wear dresses that they know don’t fit right, at least not yet. They hide within the slurring pack of straight jock bullies. They hear the screams from behind the thin walls of cheap motels. They go to their beautiful friend’s funeral. They suffer. They kill some parts of themselves. But they survive. They live to tell about it. Black me out! How many of us have ever wished we were free enough to tell those who have conspired to control us just how we really feel? By the last track, Laura Jane Grace walks away from the transgender dysphoria blues in a triumphant victory march towards a future of honest living, whether that means being comfortable for once in her own skin or being free from meddlesome record company hacks.
And it’s not just because of the superior songwriting that rock and roll is alive here. It’s because this is a band with a guitarist (James Bowman) who knows that guitar riffs still matter. And hooks aren’t yet fully surrendered to the Swedish sycophant pop anthem writing hive collective. There is no need for a guitar solo here when you have a machine gun rhythm section that I will argue includes not just the work of Atom Willard but should more accurately include Laura Jane’s delivery. Listen to the chorus of the title track to hear what I mean.
I work in student ministry in a mainline protestant church in what a lot of people call the Bible Belt. I cast my lot in with Jesus Christ many years ago. His life is the template I use when I try to order my response to things in this world that I don’t understand. And I’ve also been to funerals for teenagers who felt that nothing could bring them back from the edge of despair as they worked through understanding their sexuality and gender identity outside of what they had been told was normal or fully human. I try to explain to students and their families that nothing will ever be able to separate them from God’s love for them. I try to help them stay healthy and stay alive. But like I’ve said, I’ve been to their funerals. Sometimes the pressure put upon them feels like too much to endure. In this album, I believe I learned a lot that will help me understand someone who is going through a personal nightmare of loneliness and darkness. These songs enlightened me. These songs can bring light into the darkness for someone who is struggling. This album of unabashed rock and roll can save lives.
And the first life that it saved belongs to Laura Jane Grace. She won’t be the last.